Warren Gatland thinks selecting the Lions team for the first South African Test was his most difficult yet, revealing that neither he nor his coaches had chosen the final line-up earlier this week.
The Lions boss, on his fourth tour and third as head coach, said it took an hour and a half on Monday to narrow down his picks.
He eventually emerged with Ali Price on scrum half ahead of Conor Murray, Alun Wyn Jones from lock in his 10th Lions Test, Stuart Hogg on Liam Williams full-back, Luke Cowan-Dickie on hooker and Duhan van der Merwe on Josh Adams on the wing.
Warren Gatland says his first Lions squad was the toughest he’s faced in his entire career hele
Mako Vunipola led the surprising omissions, having been a mainstay in the team before
“It was the hardest selection meeting I’ve ever been involved in,” Gatland said.
“I know a lot of people think it’s the team I select, but that’s never been the way, both with the Lions and Wales. It is important that as coaches we all have a say in the composition of the team.
“I can tell you that none of the coaches got the 23 they came to the meeting with, I think that’s an honor for the players – we all thought about different permutations and combinations and what the composition of the 23 looked like. Like it.
“There was a long discussion and just to give you an idea, in the front pack we had four of the same eight and in the back line we had three of the same seven between the five of us.
Gatland and his coaches spent about 90 minutes toning down his picks and admitted that the quality of his team made the decision difficult for them
“It just goes to show how difficult it was in terms of that selection, but it’s a great place to be because there are so many players in the squad who are raising their hands and making it difficult for us.
‘Yesterday we had quite a good training, a bit of nagging and all that.
“That’s exactly what we wanted, I take my hat off to the guys who helped that test team, they really got up front and trained exceptionally well.
‘From a coaching perspective you can’t ask for more.’
Selecting South African-born Van der Merwe – one of three Scots in the lineup, the most since 1997 when Gregor Townsend, Alan Tait and Tom Smith played – Gatland added: ‘It’s a challenge for him. I talked to him yesterday about what’s coming next weekend and he was fully aware of it because I assume every time he touches the ball they’ll try to hit it with everything they’ve got and there’s probably also what words will be.
Ali Price’s inclusion for stand-in captain Conor Murray is another bold selection choice
He admitted to making a number of “heavy phone calls,” including the omission of Josh Adams
“So he knows very well what is at stake and he is incredibly relaxed. The way he runs with the ball and beats defenders, and also tries to score. He was the top try-scorer in the Six Nations.” Adams scored eight tries in his first three games on tour, but was left out of the Test side.
“It was a very difficult decision to let Josh Adams out,” said Gatland.
“I spoke to Josh yesterday and just said it was such a difficult decision for us and for himself.
“He had a pretty emotional week last week with the birth of his child and checking in the days after. In his own words, he probably didn’t play as well as he normally would on Saturday. And that’s completely understandable given the week he had.
“He received a blow to the hip and quite a blow to the sternum, which was also quite painful. it was a difficult decision, but I talked to him about that decision.
“For some of the players I spoke to, I showed them some stats from previous tours of how the test team went from test one to test two to test three, how many changes have traditionally been made.
Dan Biggar will start the first test, but England’s Owen Farrell has been named on the bench
“So even if not everyone is involved, hopefully they will still have opportunities.” Asked what it meant to see his captain Jones back and fit for his 10th Lions Test, Gatland quipped: ‘That he’s old! He’s been at it for a while!
“Look, it’s a fantastic achievement for everyone, not only playing your first test match, but playing 10. It’s fantastic.
“I think it shows who he is as a player, but I have to say that not just for Alun Wyn, but this whole squad, being here and playing for the Lions means a lot to them.
“To see someone like Alun Wyn who desperately wanted to go back to rehab and be here to represent the Lions again shows a lot about him as a person, but also what the Lions mean to Alun Wyn, but not just for him, but for everyone.’ Jones himself can’t wait for another try with the Lions as he thought his dream was over after he dislocated his shoulder against Japan last month.
Alun Wyn Jones to captain the British and Irish Lions after recovering from serious injury
“To sit here now and be involved with the test team is all I’ve really worked for lately, I’d be lying if I said it was two years, it’s probably four years,” said the skipper.
“I think I was sitting at home on the couch on Sunday before the boys got to the airport. That was a difficult one.
“Fast-forward to Tuesday, when I was told there was a chance it was almost surreal. To be here, taking punches and punches and being among the group means more. I’m not going to lie, it means more.
“Sometimes all you need is an opportunity — I was willing to work hard and get myself right, and make it hard for the guy next to me (Gatland), and make myself available for selection.”
The Lions will play against South Africa on Saturday in Cape Town – which will also host the second and third Tests.